“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson~

The October 2009 issue of School Library Journal features the article, “Things That Keep Us Up at Night” by Doug Johnson and Joyce Valenza, two library professionals who are considered by many to be among our profession’s most thoughtful and forward thinking leaders. Some readers interpreted this article as a call to action and for us as school library professionals to step up our efforts to be cognizant of the shifts in the information landscape occurring in our profession.  Johnson and Valenza feel these approaches would create a proactive approach for providing students the information literacy skills they need to fully participate in today’s world.

However, others took offense to the article, particularly the sections, “The Challenge of Keeping Ahead” and “Failing to Embrace Networked Media.” For the last two weeks,  several librarians, including me, engaged in two lengthy conversations about this question with Beth Friese, a colleague,  via Twitter over Friese’s question and subsequent discussion, “Where Are the Others?” in her response to this article over at Johnson’s Blue Skunk blog.

These ideas and concerns shared in the SLJ article are not new—they were voiced as early as  September 2007 by Valenza and by Johnson in February 2008. Both Valenza and Johnson have blogged diligently to provide strategies and solutions to these challenges, yet it seems those efforts have fallen on many a deaf ear.  It is frankly a bit stunning and disturbing to me that so many in our profession are in a real state of denial the perilous state of school librarianship in the United States.

While I feel Friese presents an articulate response, I disagree with her and some of the individuals who responded on Doug’s blog  as well as Joyce’s blog on several points, so I would like to summarize Friese’s concerns and then share my responses to those statements.

Criticism: Finger Pointing and Exclusion

Beth addresses the authors, stating, “You point your finger right at them in this piece and tell them they are dragging us down. However, they never seem to enter the conversation. Many of us think we know some of these librarians. But they are absent from the debate.” Beth also shared she felt library leaders should be encouraging those who are “behind” rather than admonishing them.

I did not read the article as reflecting a “finger wagging” attitude, but instead, as an honest and constructive assessment of the state of our profession. If you asked any school librarian if he/she knows a colleague who is stagnant and taking no initiative to be a lifelong learner, they could identify not just one, but probably several, which I find disturbing.  For every principal who may not be savvy as to what he/she should expect from his/her school library media specialist, there is one who yearns for a school library media specialist who will be a catalyst for learning and change in the building.

In addition, leaders like Johnson, Valenza, and many others have done nothing but provide ongoing encouragement and idea sharing through both social media and print journal articles to the library community.  For those who are not in school districts that are adequately resourced, a personal learning network can accomplish the same goal, and in many ways, more effectively.   There are ample opportunities for school librarians to access and apply information about the latest tools, trends, and questions for debate, but they must be sought out.

Friese also takes issue over the statement that those who are failing to change are “dragging our profession down.”  In the section, “Failure to Embrace Networked Media”, Johnson and Valenza write:

“Librarians who don’t have PLNs, don’t attend conferences, don’t read cutting-edge professional literature—from both the library and the education worlds—are dragging our profession down. And good people are going with them. Professionals who lack an understanding of the power of professional networking disturb our slumbers.”

However, Chip R.  Bell and John R. Patterson remind us in The Hazards of Culture Change that “…without needed change the organization risks losing its competitive advantage. Losing its edge makes it harder to attract and retain the best talent and resources, and in today’s economy, the death knell begins.”  In his keynote speech, “Future Proofing Your Library” at the Georgia Council of Media Organizations (COMO) on October 8, 2009 , Steven J. Bell reminded us that our accomplishments of the past will not carry us into the future.  Look at the world we live in—I do not think it is possible or feasible to try and make a convincing argument that a school librarian should not be making an effort to be technologically savvy.

Before the advent of the read/write web, most educators engaged in professional growth through college coursework, local staff development, traditional conferences, or print professional publications; as email became more commonplace, many engaged with others through list servs. While those means still exist, there are now many exciting, dynamic, and FREE means for extending your professional learning and networking with others. While many may choose to enter these conversations about school librarianship through traditional mediums, more options than ever exist to do so at a time that is just right for you and your schedule: social media/networks such as Twitter or Facebook, blogs freely available to anyone for reading at a time that works for your schedule, print publications now available through your state/public virtual library or better yet, for free on the web, Google groups, virtual conferences (many of which are archived for viewing at a time that works for you), the social bookmarking networks of others as well as groups in social bookmarking services like Diigo and free webinars that are open to anyone who chooses to participate. No where did it state in the article you have to participate in all forms of communication; instead, find an entry point and grow your means of connecting with others at a pace and with the tools that are comfortable for you.

Friese feels those in disagreement with the ideas of the Johnson and Valenza’s article are absent from the debate, but I don’t see exclusion as a reason as to why the others aren’t “here.”  Unfortunately, many have adopted the mindset that learning stops once we complete graduate school and feel they do not need additional professional growth after graduation.   Beth calls for a “culture of curiosity”, but should that culture not already been well established in school librarianship?  We must leave behind the thinking that one’s MLS or SLM program can prepare you for everything you may encounter.   While it certainly should provide a solid foundation, graduate preparation is only the beginning of your journey as a library professional.   I see ongoing growth and learning as fun and challenging, not as a dreary chore that evokes a sense of being overwhelmed or overworked.

We also cannot limit our exploration of ideas to our comfort areas of interest—we must be willing to learn more about emerging trends and ideas that may not be our first love but may be the very thing that draws in our students. I cannot stress how much my PLN has influenced my practice; for nearly two years now, I have cultivated and continue to grow my personal learning network to include experts and knowledgeable others both within the field as well as those outside of it who have so many insights to offer that help me improve my practice .  If you aren’t willing to be organic, you exclude yourself from having a place at the table of school librarianship. How can you be effective if you are not making some effort to hone your talents and knowledge?

Can we really justify inaction and a failure to model lifelong learning, particularly when we know we have a significant perception problem about what we do and how we impact a school environment? Is there really any reason for not making an effort to keep your finger on the pulse of your profession and being proactive in your practice? Is there honestly any legitimate reason for any school librarian to NOT engage in ongoing reflection through some means?

I now ask you to look at our AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learners. The sampling of skills, dispositions, and responsibilities below reflect an emphasis on networked learning and social media:

  • 2.1.4 Use technology and other information tools to analyze and organize information.
  • 2.1.5 Collaborate with others to exchange ideas, develop new understandings, make decisions, and solve problems.
  • 3.1.2: Participate and collaborate as members of a social and intellectual network of learners.
  • 3.1.4: Use technology and other information tools to organize and display knowledge and understanding in ways that others can view, use, and assess.
  • 3.1.5 Connect learning to community issues.
  • 3.3.1 Solicit and respect diverse perspectives while searching for information, collaborating with others, and participating as a member of the community.
  • 3.3.3 Use knowledge and information skills and dispositions to engage in public conversation and debate around issues of common concern.
  • 3.3.4 Create products that apply to authentic, real-world contexts.
  • 3.3.5 Contribute to the exchange of ideas within and beyond the learning community.
  • 4.1.2: Read widely and fluently to make connections with self, the world, and previous reading.
  • 4.1.4: Seek information for personal learning in a variety of formats and genres.
  • 4.1.6: Organize personal knowledge in a way that can be called upon easily.
  • 4.1.7: Use social networks and information tools to gather and share information.
  • 4.2.1: Display curiosity by pursuing interests through multiple resources.
  • 4.3.1: Participate in the social exchange of ideas, both electronically and in person.
  • 4.3.3: Seek opportunities for pursuing personal and aesthetic growth.

Look at the ideas and concepts in these standards related to networked and connected learning.   It sounds an awful lot like inquiry and using social media to accomplish these tasks to me.  How can you teach what you do not practice?

Last but not least, numerous groups continue to sound the warning bell for the importance of positing transliteracy as an essential literacy. You can read more about my thoughts and reactions to the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy at my blog post here, but in a nutshell, transliteracy is becoming the new cultural capital. While no one is saying to throw out the practices that work, the report does concur with Johnson and Valenza’s assertion that we must put the needs of today’s learners first. Recommendation 6 warns:

“It may be tempting for teachers and administrators who are themselves uncomfortable with new media to view digital and media competencies as “add-ons” to basic learning in “reading, writing and, arithmetic.” These competencies are, however, new forms of foundational learning. The consequences of neglecting this challenge can be dire. Students who are deeply immersed in the world of online communication outside of school may find classrooms [and hence, school libraries] that marginalize new technologies both tedious and irrelevant.”

Too many school librarians dismiss these kinds of literacies as fleeting and see them as irrelevant. They scoff at the conversations we attempt to have about networked learning, the emergence of social scholarship, and the need to teach our students ways to harness the power of social media. Are our schools providing our students the advantage through well-rounded information literacy instruction and learning activities that value digital and media literacy? Or do we privilege traditional literacies at the expense of this cultural capital our students need? As leaders in our school communities, a role we should be embracing, let us blaze the trail to create a culture of inquiry that encourages students to use these literacies as a lens for understanding more deeply how multiple kinds of texts function within our society. Who better to wave the banner for transliteracy than school librarians?

Criticism: Barriers

Beth identifies what she perceives to be a list of obstacles and roadblocks to change that she feels may explain why school librarians may not cultivate a personal learning network.

• basic internet access

• aging collections

• fixed scheduling

• no paraprofessional support

• outrageous student to library staff ratio

• test scores dictate instruction

• money to travel to conferences no longer exists

• filtering reigns

• they may face administrators who don’t support them

• teachers with no time to collaborate

• few obvious opportunities to develop whatever a PLN is

Some feel that these concerns are not shared by what Jim Randolph (Teacher Ninja) identifies as “first wave adopters”.   Are more progressive librarians immune from these challenges?  It is naïve to think that librarians who are considered ahead of the curve don’t worry about these challenges and/or face them in their library environment; the difference is that some of us choosing to not let these circumstances or barriers define who are or what we do as librarians.   We instead try to see these challenging situations and times as an opportunity to innovate,  not to dwell on the things we cannot do.

These are topics that should be of concern to every school library media specialist in the test driven culture and economically challenged times we work in.  They are not reasons, though, to fail to innovate and keep up.  I try to be very transparent about the challenges I face through my blog (many of which are on this list above); however, I also endeavor to demonstrate that there are obstacles and may also get discouraged at times, If I throw up my hands and give up, how can I hope to achieve the goals and vision I have for the library program if I don’t chip away at the problem?  I do believe that with continued and consistent efforts to educate and nurture decision and policy makers, I can slowly but surely eliminate barriers to change.  I also must be willing to challenge my thinking, seek out others who can help me analyze the obstacles from multiple perspectives, and also be willing to take risks to try and effect authentic change.  Our times call for “true grit” and our willingness to keep getting up even if we get knocked down more than once.

These concerns lead to the ideas of advocacy and leadership, which are addressed by Johnson and Valenza in the article. We have to remember that our efforts to tear down these barriers are about what is best for our students. At the end of the day, it’s really not about you, the school librarian.  Instead, we must keep our focus on what is best for students.  We cannot sit around and indulge in self-pity and endless complaining about the challenges we face.  Instead, we can choose to identify the problems and campaign for effective solutions that will provide the best possible learning environment for our students. We cannot sit and wait for someone to save us; we must save ourselves through grass-roots advocacy and effective marketing of our library programs.

School library advocate and “Washington Mom” Lisa Layera Brunkan reminded us at the School Library Journal Summit in October 2009 that our advocacy efforts should be focused on how these obstacles and cuts affect students; if we do not collect the appropriate data, demonstrate how we make a difference through transparent means (i.e. social media), cultivate our presence as one that is “indispensable” in our building, then we will continue to see the erosion and marginalization of our roles. Sara Kelley Johns, former AASL president and 2010 ALA presidential candidate outlined our roles as leaders at the SLJ Summit, asserting that “We have to be the leaders in the building whether they acknowledge us or not!”

Rather than seeing ourselves as victims who are helpless, we must work together to find creative solutions to the obstacles Beth has identified in her response. For those who feel powerless, engaging in creating a personal learning network can connect them others around the world who have faced similar challenges and found ways to overcome these seemingly insurmountable odds. Johns also reminds us that,

“Advocacy rests on solid programs—we may have good programs now, but we have to be learners ourselves. All of us need to be learners—whatever we can do to foster the most effective learning to students among our fellow librarians is one librarian’s mantra.”

The marvelous and brutally honest blog post, “Embracing Obstacles” from the Brand Builder Blog, offers many pearls of wisdom for dealing with barriers. I encourage you to read the blog post in its entirety, but Oliver Blanchard offers this perspective on how we should view and deal with obstacles:

Great project managers aren’t just natural multi-taskers. They’re also natural strategic masterminds. Improvisation kings (and queens). Crisis jugglers. Fearless creative acrobats. Their job (their nature) is to constantly find and implement solutions to problems, foreseen and not. Their job is to embrace hurdles and obstacles, because each one brings them one step closer to their goal. They thrive on making things happen. The more untraveled the road, the better. The more complex the gameboard, the better.
It takes a special kind of person to be able to a) do that kind of work well, and b) love every minute of it.  It isn’t for everybody. Excuses and blame don’t exist in this little world. There’s only what you did and what you didn’t do.  Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.  For most people, that’s not a good thing…and for some of us, that’s when the real fun begins.

Are we not project managers? The AASL Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Media Programs has added leader to our list of roles we play in our learning communities. How can you lead if you are not making an active effort to keep up with what is happening in the field and taking proactive measures to adapt? I am a firm believer in leading by example, and we cannot lead for our students, teachers, administrators, or parents if we are allowing perceived obstacles to impede us from our mission. Are you that special kind of person who leads and advocates for your library program in the face of these challenges? Are you what Stephen Walker defines as an “A” librarian who innovates in spite of adversity?  Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson remind us in The Hazards of Leading Culture Change that “Planned change takes courage and tenacity.”

Criticism:  2.0 Is Not Our Brand

Friese writes, “ Our brand really can’t be social media. It can’t be databases. It can’t be 2.0. Not only will these things fade away, they exclude large parts of our profession from participation. I’d rather adopt our brand as “cultivating curiosity.” That will stand the test of time. And it’s something we can all gather around the table and talk about pushing toward.”

Based on our AASL Standards for 21st Century Learners, it seems to me that we should have already adopted and been cultivating a brand of inquiry and curiosity.   Are our library school programs instilling this value and mindset in students? Are there any legitimate reasons as to why every librarian would not already have this stance to some degree?

Secondly, I don’t think Joyce identifies any one of these “things” as our brand although I feel there is really no argument that they are indeed elements of our brand for now.   Go look at the manifesto linked in the article (and please note that every reader was invited to contribute) —does it look as though it is focused on single item to you? To me, that answer is no. Instead, the manifesto identifies critical issues that we must address and include as part of our library programs. And if you don’t agree with the brand, what would you add? Again, the invitation to engage and contribute is there, but if you aren’t participating, can you really complain?

You can be excluded only if you allow yourself to be by choice. If you choose to not join the conversations that are taking place in many spaces, then yes, you will be excluded.

Final Thoughts

Many of us interact with media specialists who are just in the process of cultivating their personal learning networks. I think we all make an effort to welcome the new voices and provide encouragement to those who want and ask for help—I won’t identify names for fear of omitting anyone, but I can identify several school librarians that I have helped through f2f interaction, Twitter, Gmail chat, and emails. The encouragement Beth prefers has been in place and continues to be there, but school librarians have to be willing to take those first steps to get started on the journey.  You cannot be helped if you are not willing to help yourself.

Jim Randolph mentioned my visit to his class (my alma mater, I might add, the University of Georgia) and stated that while he enjoyed the visit, some were overwhelmed by the information I was asked to deliver. While some may have reacted to the presentation in that manner, I can attest there were those who listened to my advice to start with one piece of the puzzle at the time and who have started sowing seeds of advocacy and leadership in their practice; never did I say that my practice was ideal or something that happened overnight. I can assure you any good I have done in my school is the result of hard work, persistence, and an unwavering belief that my library program does have relevance.   No one else is going to believe you and your work are relevant if you don’t believe yourself.

I don’t consider myself an exceptional librarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I do consider myself a learning and information professional who tries to embody the qualities of Librarian 2.0. I also try to convey I have miles to go in my growth and practice, but through ongoing reflection and assessment, I can feel confident that I am taking the right steps to be a lifelong learner. I think if we approach our “work” as play and joyful learning, then perhaps we might be better able to follow Seth Godin’s directive to “Stop trying to be perfect and start being remarkable!

Doug Johnson concludes the blog post by asking these questions, “Do we owe an apology to those who struggle in silence? How can we give a voice to those who choose not to network?”

If you believe that constructive criticism is part of ongoing self-assessment and a key to growth, then the answer is no. If anyone is owed an apology, it is the students who are not getting the instruction and library program they deserve because they happen to be in a school in which their school librarian who chooses, for whatever reasons, to not at least make the effort to implement a library program that is responsive and proactive.  No one disagrees that each person will adopt these practices in different ways—we can celebrate that, but there is nothing to celebrate about those who won’t even make the effort to move forward.

As for the question about giving a voice to those who choose not to network, only they can give themselves a voice by choosing to participate in the community discussion rather than standing on the sidelines.  In conclusion, it is my firm belief that no one can “give” you your voice. You must find it yourself and then be willing to share it with others so that we may all learn and work toward moving our profession forward.

“Where Are the Others” is not really a question I think is most important.   Instead, I think this question is what we each need to ask ourselves as school librarians:

What will you do with your voice?